Q&A: Jason Mathers, senior manager, Green Freight, Environmental Defense Fund
HDT: Tell me about the Environmental Defense Fund and what you do.
Mathers: We're a national environmental advocacy organization. One of the core ways we work to advance environmental solutions is working collaboratively with companies to identify and promote and demonstrate best practices that can save companies money and reduce environmental impact.
We work mostly with shippers to identify how they can become more efficient at distribution and logistics operations.
For instance, with Ocean Spray they looked at adding a distribution center to their network, which dramatically cut down on outbound freight times and allowed them to change one lane from truck to intermodal. [Paper company] Boise was able to work with Office Max, a key customer, to facilitate some direct rail moves of products going to Office Max stores, where the Boise DC and the Office Max DC both had rail access.
These are indicative of changes we want to see other shippers do. We are highlighting these as examples of ways companies are becoming more efficient and reducing environmental impact.
That's given me a lot of exposure and insight into how companies interact with the trucking industry and into some of the key ways the trucking industry operates.
So I'm collaborating a lot with some colleagues who are focused on regulatory efforts to reduce carbon emissions, and one of the key priorities for our organization over the coming years is to advance strong fuel efficiency and greenhouse gas standards in the heavy-duty truck space. I've been working with our regulator team to provide recommendations to the agencies on how we would like to see a rule structured, but also engaging in discussions with manufacturers, fleets and shippers about how we can create a rule that meets their business needs and also meets the environmental imperative.
HDT: Many in the trucking industry view environmental groups with distrust, seeing visions of left-wing activists roosting in trees to save the spotted owls, for instance. How does your group differ?
Mathers: I know trucking industry and environmental advocates have had a difference of opinion. But I also think we have been able to work together in a regulatory environment and come up with some really strong rules in the past.
What the trucking industry has done to cut particulate matter and NOx emissions has been outstanding. Those are down 95% from where they were two decades ago, and that means tens of thousands of lives saved. I know that's been hard, but I also think there's been understanding built through those efforts. We have better trucks today, we have cleaner trucks today, and from a health perspective we're in a better space.
In the first phase of the greenhouse gas rule, you saw organizations like mine standing with Con-way and FedEx and Cummins as the president was signing these rules into effect. So there was broad support of the first phase rule that reflected a shared understanding of the goals we all want to reach.
From my perspective, we understand trucking is vital today and is going to be vital 20 years from now. We also understand that trucking is a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions. It's about 6% of U.S. GHG emissions. Over the next 20 year that's going to be going up to potentially about 8%, or 130 million metric tons – at a time when our best science tells us we need to be cutting climate pollution on the order of 80% or more.
To me the challenge is, how do we continue to benefit from the great services of trucking, and also meet our obligations to our children and grandchildren to cut carbon pollution? The next round of the standards is one of several things we need to do.
HDT: As you've been working more closely with trucking and shippers, what about trucking surprised you or challenged preconceived notions?
Mathers: I've been impressed with the desire of folks in this industry to advance environmental solutions. It really comes through, the desire to be good stewards that this industry has, whether it's meeting with manufacturers or with the fleets or engaging with the freight shippers. There is a broad desire to be able to meet the environmental challenges.
I think that the complexity would be the other thing that really kind of stuck – the layers of the various different type of trucking companies, and how a truck will cycle through different uses over its life cycle.
And the thing that really came out to me was the importance and the critical role of the freight shipper and how ultimately they really can drive an important part of the solution, setting up their networks in a way to maximize productivity, getting at those empty miles, those underutilized miles. Tackling those things are really in the hands of the freight shippers, even though the emissions associated are from the trucking company.
HDT: What are some things trucking companies should be doing?
Mathers: I think these fuel efficiency standards are really critical for trucking. Ultimately that's their biggest source of emissions, the amount of fuel that they're using. Having strong standards in place, well-designed standards that foster the innovation necessary to bring these more efficient, lower-emitting technologies to market, is critical to enable these trucking companies to reduce their fuel consumption and emissions per unit.
I think there's lots of things trucking companies could do in partnership with freight shippers, like co-locating freight, or pushing collaboration that matches one shipper's backhaul with a useful lane for another shipper. There's a role for trucking companies in enabling that coordination. But the most critical thing is to be embracing fuel-saving technology.
HDT: That's easy to say, but how do they decide what technologies they should buy?
Mathers: That's an area where the North American Council for Freight Efficiency has been focusing on, and [the EPA SmartWay program] has played a role here over the years.
Whether it's aerodynamic devices or other steps, what fleets can do now is looking at what's certified from SmartWay, and engaging with groups like NACFE. It's also looking at how trucking fleets can collaborate together and set up some objective testing protocols.
EPA already has certification with SmartWay, and NACFE has done some research to demonstrate for example the [6x2] tag axle. But I also think there's a role for trucking companies to collaborate and push suppliers for some really rigorous testing.
HDT: I assume EDF is involved in the development of the next step of GHG regs?
Mathers: We've been engaged with this for a while now, both internally and with other environmental advocates about key objectives we want in the rule – and also engaging with the manufacturers and fleets and increasingly freight shippers about what they want to see in the rule.
I think at a really high level, we want a rule that is going to deliver emissions reductions that frankly we need over the coming decade. We look out and see what is going on with the EPA's SuperTruck program and what the National Academy of Sciences is saying is technically feasible, and we think it's possible to reduce fuel consumption in the order of 40% below 2010 standards.
In order to do that, trailers need to be part of this next generation of standards. We think that's critical. It also needs to push efficiency in the engine and elsewhere on the vehicle.
From an environmental perspective, we want to see a rule that is going to be cost-effective and going to deliver significant emissions reduction. We would see emissions go down in the neighborhood of about 150 million metric tons from where they otherwise would be, which on an absolute basis would only be a little bit below what they are today.
To give you a sense of why we want to be pushing all these efficient technologies, we need them basically just to stay where we are from emissions perspective because of growing volume of trucking projected over the coming years. Then we need smarter logistics practices, and eventually we're going to need cleaner fuels to cut emissions to the levels required by the best science.
HDT: Where do alternative fuels fit in here?
Mathers: When we look forward to the next phase of the rule, there's clearly going to be a role for natural gas, and I think the agency needs to be pushing natural gas vehicles as well to deliver significant GHG reduction.
We want this rule to push all vehicle and all fuels to reduce emissions.
In the near term, when we think about natural gas as the most available alternative fuel, EDF has some real concerns with the upstream impact of natural gas. In the supply chain of natural gas, there's something in the order of 1.5 to 2% of natural gas that escapes through venting or cracks in pipes and infrastructure, and that is methane, which is a very very powerful greenhouse gas. Right now that does not appear to be a beneficial move from an environmental perspective.
In order to get to a place where it can be a modest environmental benefit, the natural gas industry needs to tackle the leakage and escape of natural gas in the upstream process – the production, distribution and processing phase.
EDF is leading a 16-part study on identifying the current leakage rate. One study looks at what we call pump to wheels, from the time it gets to a natural gas fuel station to the time it runs through a vehicle, and we're working with partners like Cummins, Volvo, Pepsi, Clean Energy and the natural gas association to understand the magnitude of that challenge and what we can do now to make any improvements that are needed. We're anticipating the results of all these studies will be published by the end of this calendar year.
HDT: So what about other alternative fuels that might be a good fit for trucking?
Mathers: We think the best 'alternative fuel' is efficiency. How do we get the most use out of the fuel we're already putting in? That's really what I see at least in the next decade, let's get these trucks to be as efficient as possible. In part because these fuel challenges are really complex and really challenging. We're just not there yet.
HDT: What do you say to trucking companies who would love to buy a new cleaner-burning truck but can't afford it?
Mathers: What we see from a climate perspective is huge economic benefits from the emissions rules that are in place. We see reductions in deaths from the variety of ailments pm can cause. There is a societal benefit.
From that trucking company's perspective, there is a license to operate – kind of a societal license for engaging or providing the services they do. That license to operate is increasingly tied to internalizing the negative pollution impacts of your operation.
The steps we've made to date have provided real benefits to shippers and to society at large. I also think when we look forward at fuel efficiency, we're talking about a lot of things that are going to save money, that are going to reduce the overall life cycle ownership and cost of trucks. I think these are going to be good investments, and they're critical investments for trucking to play its role in meeting the obligations that all of us have to cut carbon emissions.